Ask any Tamilian as to who ruled the ancient Tamil Lands and the answer would probably be Chola, Chera and Pandya ( the three crowned kings of Tamil Nadu) and in the later stages the Pallava Kingdom.

But how many of us know that there was a dynasty called the Kalabhras who displaced the Early Cholas, Cheras and the Pandyas and ruled the Tamil country for more than 300 years and that 3 of the 5 epics of Tamil literature (outside of Cilappathikaram and Manimekalai) were written under the Kalabhra rule ?

This here is the story of these unknown Tamil rulers.

Who are the Kalabhras?

No one knows for sure.

Whilst some say that the Kalabhras or Kalappirar in Tamil, are from the Kalava region near the present-day Bengaluru who invaded Tamil region by defeating the Pallavas (at Kanchipuram) Cholas(at Kaviripoompattinam) Pandyas (at Madurai) and also the Cheras (of the present day Kerala).

But the fact that they were also referred to as Vadukak Karunaader also suggests they might be of Andhra(Vaduka) and Karnataka(Karunaader) origin.

Some other historians trace them to the Local Tamil Chieftains like Thiraiyars (also known as Mutharaiyars) or Mudirajas etc.

But there is also a school of thought that they belong to the Buddhist- Jainist marauders and cattle-lifters from around the Andhra near the present day Tirupati.

But what we know for sure is the fact that they ruled from around 250 AD to 600 AD after defeating the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas.

What happened in the Tamil Country during this period?

Surprisingly, we do not know what happened in the Tamil Lands during this period.So much so that the period of Kalabhara rule is called the dark ages or the Kalabhra interregnum. They left neither artefacts nor monuments, and the only sources of information are scattered mentions in Sangam, Buddhist and Jain literature.

Historians suggest that this was due to the blatant and deliberate black out of this period by the latter day Hindu – Vishnavite chroniclers, due to their animosity towards the Buddhist-Jainist dynasty.Some Historians further opine that this period was called the “Dark Ages”, not because of any wrong doings of the Kalabhra kings, but only to indicate the non-availability of any historical details of the period.

Patrons of Literature

Although nothing much is known of Tamil history, Kalabharas were patrons of Buddhist and Jain literature. Considerable literary activity took place during this period. Most of these works were grouped under the head, “The Eighteen Minor works“.

Also, Silappadhikaram and Manimegalai two of the great epics of Tamil Nadu were also written during this period.

However, the great Tamil lexicographer Vaiyapuri Pillai had ascribed later dates to many of these works. This theory would undermine the link between the Kalabhras and the “Eighteen Minor works

The Kalabhra rule

Kalabhras, by invading the ancient Tamil country, disturbed the prevailing status quo. The Velvikudi inscriptions of the third regnal year of Pandya king Nedunjadaiyan (c.765 – c. 815 C.E.) say that Pandya king Mudukudumi Peruvaludi gave the village of Velvikudi as gift to a Brahmins. It was enjoyed for a long time. Then a king named Kalabhran took possession of the land, driving away many great kings.

Kalabhras fought against Brahmin supremacy and were abused by Brahmin epigraphists after their rule ended. Also the late Kalabras appear to have been Shivite and Vaishnava.

In the Brahmanical literature, the Kalabhras are “roundly as evil kings (kali-arasar) who uprooted many and abrogated brahmadeya rights”. However, the modern researchers have shown that the Kalabhras were neither nor enemies of civilisation but were a very civilized people and in fact their reign saw the creation of excellent Tamil literature. The primary reason as to why they were ignored or by the brahmins was because they were Buddhists.

The Sangam age was said to have ended when Kalabhras took over the Tamil country from the Chera, Chola and the Pandyas

The Fall of the Kalabhras

The rule of the Kalabhras was ended around 650 AD by the counter-invasions of Pandyas, Chalukyas and Pallavas. There are other references to the Kalabhras in Pallava and Chalukya inscriptions. They were conquered by Simhavishnu Pallava and Kadungon Pandyan

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